With a conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court, it’s no surprise that the justices are handing victory after victory to the Christian Right. This week was dominated by the revelation that conservative Christians were about to achieve their biggest victory ever after decades of reshaping the Court (and dismissing all the people who’d be hurt by their decisions).
But far less noticed is how this Court has allowed religion to circumvent the rules altogether.
We’ve gone from occasional (newsworthy) religious exemptions—like when Catholic nuns said signing a piece of paper violated their faith, thus depriving “as many as 126,400 women” from accessing free contraception— to “religious freedom’ exemptions becoming the norm.
Don’t like a law? Just say your God doesn’t allow it, and poof, this Court will grant you victory.
Writing for The Atlantic, law professor Linda Greenhouse digs into how the judges have given too much leeway to the idea of religious sincerity. Among her many examples, she points out how a death row inmate cited his religious beliefs—and delayed his own execution—until his pastor could be allowed in the chamber; how former football coach Joe Kennedy said his faith allows him to pray at midfield after the final whistle; and how religious exemptions to vaccine mandates helped prolong the pandemic.
The problem is that the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” can’t be refuted. So what happens when someone’s religious beliefs are factually wrong and/or cause harm to other people? Right now, those things don’t seem to matter. Anything goes if God is involved.
Where sincerity is relevant, where it bites, is when someone seeks a religion-based exception from a rule that applies to society at large and that exception causes harm to someone else. It is this prospect of third-party harm—a price to be paid, a burden to be borne—that makes the question of sincerity necessary. If others are to pay a price for someone’s religious freedom, it’s surely reasonable to expect that the claim is based on felt necessity, not convenience or simple preference.
It’s an important question the Court needs to reckon with. Consider the presumed ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. No doubt there will be Satanist or Jewish groups who argue their faith requires women to have control over their bodies—and thank goodness for them. But we’re only in this mess because conservative Christians have been arguing for decades that strangers’ abortions somehow violate their own irrational religious views. (Their views against contraception and marriage equality will put those issues on the chopping block, too.)
Similarly, the rules created during the pandemic were meant to keep Americans safe, yet religious groups routinely filed lawsuits saying they had to gather in person no matter how many people might die as a result of it. Many pastors even broadcast how they’d sign religious exemption cards for anyone who asked or donated, regardless of that person’s actual level of devotion, making a sham of the whole idea and helping the virus spread.
If the Court’s going to let faith-based reasoning trump sensible laws, shouldn’t they at least find some way of assessing sincerity? Because if they don’t, they’re just opening the door for anyone to challenge any law by citing their religion… without any ability for judges to dismiss the argument. And make no mistake: These views benefit Christians first and foremost. It’s not like Republicans would be bragging about “religious freedom” if Muslims were the primary beneficiaries of their policies.
Greenhouse offers at least one path forward: If people’s “sincerely held” views are obviously hypocritical, then screw them:
… there is an obvious way to test the sincerity of religious vaccine resisters who claim abhorrence of the vaccine’s origins. Do they use any of the common medications that also derive from research using fetal cells, including Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, ordinary aspirin, Sudafed, Preparation H, and dozens of others?…
That would follow the path of one Arkansas hospital system and it’s a wise one. If it’s that easy to debunk the idea that getting vaccinated violates your faith, or whatever the case may be, you shouldn’t be able to get an exemption. But for now, such responses aren’t being given the weight they deserve.
Until that changes, we have a justice system that puts religious mythology over secular facts.